Personalization Passe?

Date Published: 
January, 2004
Original Author: 
Mark Krause
Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2004

Our Future Is Tied to Developing a Sense of Showmanship—
And the Future is Now!

When a family asks to display photos, your staff pulls out some memory boards.
When a family wants to bring in some mementos, you set up a table.
In fact, whatever a family asks for, you pretty much do.
This puts you on the cutting edge of funeral service, right? Wrong, says this funeral director.

Everywhere we look in the death care profession, we see volumes of articles about personalization and how it is the key to our future. You know the story: The baby boomers are searching for ways to remember and say good-bye that show the uniqueness of the deceased. I applaud and embrace the consumer for pressing these desires on a profession that accepts change as quickly as a glacier runs a mile.

In today's world, "personalization" is the buzzword that has most death care professionals shaking their heads, saying, "Yeah, we are all about personalization. We have the picture boards and the memory tables, and we even let the families play Elvis CDs over our sound system during visitations. Our funeral home lets families do whatever they want!"

The problem is this sentiment contains the essence of what is wrong, both as operating businesspeople and as guardians of a noble and valuable profession. First, those of us who think picture boards and memory tables with dad's bowling trophies or mom's knit blankets are something special are living back in the early '80s.

This type of personalization is nothing more than a cookie-cutter, vanilla ice cream, white bread attempt in the eyes of our present-day consumer. Run-of-the-mill personalization can be found at the vast majority of funerals today. I contend that if you are not doing this type of basic personalization, you already have lost a client base that you will not realize for a decade belongs to your competitors. The most interesting attitudes are those of the people who still try to claim that they know "their families."

We Need to Have the Ideas
We can no longer hang our customer satisfaction hats on personalized back panels, fraternal emblems on crypt fronts and custom casket comers. The traditional funeral as we know it is waning and is being replaced by a service where the focus is on everything else but the casketed body.

We may run outstanding funerals now, but we must stop and look at what is coming over the hill. You can make the best horse-drawn buggies in the world, but if everyone is buying cars it is just a matter of time before professional evolution slowly sends your vocation the way of the blacksmith's.

Funeral service needs to focus on our consumers and what they are searching for. I say "searching" because they do not know what they want or like, but they certainly know what they do not like.

Families come to us for guidance, options, judgment and, most of all, ideas. Just as patients do not tell a doctor what treatment or medicine should be prescribed, our clients should not be the ones providing us with the ideas for performing a special funeral. As professionals, our long-term survival depends on our being the source of creative and memorable experiences.

This is where our profession needs to break out of its comfort zone and develop a sense of showmanship. The only thing that separates us from an event planner or wedding planner is the fact that we are licensed to care for the deceased. Yes, there are other subtle differences, and we also are trained to help people who are grieving, but that is about it. We need to constantly improve our performance and turn the funerals of today into meaningful experiences people will talk about for years. This is where our true value lies.

We are not in the funeral business anymore; we are in the hospitality business and show business. I am not saying we need to break out the dogs and ponies, but maybe having a stronger focus on more interaction during the visitation and service would be a good start.

Dove, balloon and butterfly releases create a wonderful memory. The remembrance videos we are seeing more and more will be part of most funerals within two years. Are you actively pursuing alternatives to organ music? How many baby boomers listen to organ music in their cars or at home?

Our mission is to help families remember the stories of a lifetime in a contemporary style, because this is where the present-day funeral consumer is finding value.

In my view, personalization is a symptom of the problem. What do I mean by that? I see today's funeral consumers experiencing weak attempts at personalization. It's like watching a drama club performance but expecting Broadway. Or maybe—an even more frightening thought—they DO expect only the drama club.

It all starts with how we as funeral professionals are taught, trained, mentored and developed to interact with our client families. Is there a mortuary school that requires a public speaking class or advanced arrangement training? What kind of communication and counseling skills are being developed to ensure that our next generation of "young lions" is more effective and professional than the current brand of undertaker?

The only places one can receive this type of advanced training is through postgraduate seminars or programs. This is not the fault of the schools alone. As a profession, we have not demanded more, we have not sought curriculum changes.

In many states, the funeral professional is required to be both a backroom technician and a person who can articulate the value and purpose of funerals. It seems to me these are very different skill sets. I realize some people are good at both embalming and planning a meaningful funeral with the family, but in general, are we creating funeral service providers who have basic skills in both areas but excel at neither? With the shrinking talent pool, we need arrangers who are articulate advocates, not jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none mediocrities.

Learn to Act as Well as React
Funeral directors are trained to react at a very high level to one of life's great tragedies. What makes funeral directors so good at helping people deal with tragedy often makes us inadequate at seeing and then planning for the future. It is our nature to comfort, guide and help families as they react to heartbreak. After walking a family through the funeral experience, we take a breath and turn to the next family that needs our counsel. We become so good at reacting that, as a profession, we find it difficult to be proactive.

Why should a funeral director who owns traditional funeral homes, a traditional business, want to upset the apple cart and take a "shot across the bow" at how our profession operates and heads toward the future?

One possible reason is selfishness: "I want my business to continue and thrive." Or altruism: "I believe in the value of a funeral service that helps people on the worst day of their lives." Or excitement: "All of us have the ability to create a bright and promising future."

Every person who walks in our front door gives us an opportunity to show that funerals are not a mundane, obligatory event. Our goal should be to have our funeral guests say, "Wow, now that was a funeral." When you hear that type of comment, the experience being described may be setting new standards of funeral performance.

Intellectually, all of us understand that change is inevitable. We understand that change is the way of the world. In our professional circles, we joke and shake our heads about those who have difficulty accepting change. Yet emotionally, most of us fight professional change as if someone just insulted our mother.

It is hard to sail the boat when the anchor is in the water. Professionally, we need to keep reaching for the future and stop clinging to the past. The search for answers starts with conducting market research, listening to our customers and breaking out of our comfort zones.

Creative and inspiring funerals are possible if we care enough to notice what attracts people. Hospitality and showmanship are the keys to outstanding funeral experiences. Families will gravitate toward a company that takes care of people very well and moves their hearts.

If funeral professionals can make this transition, we may have a chance to have a similar discussion in about 100 years.